Pro vice-chancellors weave a "web" that straddles the corporate and academic worlds in a way that is vital to the function of their universities.
This is the conclusion of a study of the role of pro vice-chancellors, universities' second leadership tier, in the current edition of Higher Education Quarterly.
David Smith, director of the University of Leeds Higher Education Policy Unit, and Jonathan Adams, director of the data-analysis firm Evidence, interviewed 73 pro vice-chancellors and their senior colleagues from 13 UK universities.
They conclude that pro vice-chancellors "maintain a complex corporate-academic web, balancing two sometimes contradictory roles". They combine a "firmly academic" role, maintaining cross-institutional responsibility for core academic values and mission with a more "operational, bureaucratic and executive" function concerned with accountability.
"The roles interact and the pro vice-chancellor sees and keeps the balance between mundane operations and their deeper implications for academic values and mission," the study says. It adds that pro vice-chancellors use "influence" rather than "command" to gain authority.
Dr Smith was surprised that despite pressure on them to become more executive, pro vice-chancellors saw and explained themselves primarily in terms of their academic credentials. He said: "It is important for the institution that an understanding of academic life and values is there. If you did not have that, an institution could find a gap opening between its academic core purpose and values and where it was going in other senses."
The paper, Academics or Executives? Continuity and Change in the Roles of Pro Vice-Chancellors, builds on a previous study of pro vice-chancellor roles published by the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education.